Fast, fun, and full of improvisation, jazz is full of talented musicians. They play various instruments and each has its recognizable technique. The piano is easily one of the most impressive and is equally versatile being able to be a supporting instrument or take center stage in the right hands.
There have been countless amazing jazz pianists over the 100 years or so of jazz history, and we couldn’t list them all. However, in this post, we’re going to take a small look at 28 of the greatest and most famous jazz piano players since the genre’s inception. Let’s get started.
1. Oscar Peterson
A list of jazz pianists should really start with one of the greats, and that possibly has to be Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Born in 1925, he was prodigy, playing the piano when he was only five.
Peterson got his musical break playing at a concert for Norman Ganz at Carnegie Hall in 1949, and he took most of his influences from Art Tatum and Nat King Cole. Nonetheless, Peterson’s playing, full of almost throw-away notes and daring sweeps of the keys, was all his own.
Probably known most for his recordings as a trio, Peterson played with double jazz bassists Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, as well as drummers Ed Thigpen, Louis Hayes, and guitarists such as Joe Pass and Herb Ellis.
He started playing solo piano in the 1970s, which he found not only popular with audiences but intensely satisfying in their own right. His improvisations were ambitious, acrobatic feats of performance, and he loved playing them as much as his audience loved listening.
Peterson went on to win the Praemium Imperiale Prize from the Japan Art Association in 1999 and several Grammys throughout his career.
Related: You might also like our post on the most famous jazz musicians here.
2. Duke Ellington
One of the great jazz composers and pianists of all time, Edward Kennedy Ellington—or Duke Ellington, as he was more commonly known—was born in 1899 in Washington DC. He quickly became a household name after giving his first New York performance in 1923.
From there, it was a short leap to the formation of his sextet, which quickly became a ten-piece band, and finally, a fourteen-piece ensemble known as the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Between 1927 and 1931, his orchestra were regular performers at the forum Cotton Club in Harlem, where Ellington really made a name for himself.
Aside from his piano playing, he was also known for his compositions, with some of his best-known pieces being “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and “Satin Doll,” which all became staples of the jazz repertoire.
3. Count Basie
New Jersey-born pianist William James Basie—known by fans as Count Basie—played an integral role in reshaping the musical landscape of the early 20th century.
Both Basie’s parents were musicians though they didn’t play professionally. Thus it wasn’t surprising he had inherited their musical talent. His mom endeavored that he would have piano lessons.
When he was older, Basie headed to Harlem to perform there. At Harlem, he rubbed elbows with many jazz greats the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
After playing in various band, Basie became known for his orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra. “Swingin’ the Blues,” “One O’clock Jump,” and Five O’clock Jive” are among some of their popular pieces.
4. Wynton Kelly
With a blues-based playing style, Wynton Charles Kelly made his professional debut at 12. By the time he was 16, he was an R&B sensation.
Wanting to establish more of a name for himself, Kelly began recording three years later with Dinah Washington. Subsequently, Kelly became a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, thereby switching from R&B to jazz.
It stuck. Despite a two-year turn in military service, Kelly returned to the jazz scene as accomplished and beloved as ever. He was part of Miles Davies band from 1959 to 1963 and was the pianist on Davies’s album Kind of Blue, which remains the best-selling jazz album on record.
5. Brad Meldhau
A more modern jazz pianist, Brad Meldhau started playing and recording in the 1990s, releasing his first album in 1998. However, he cut his teeth with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman as part of his renowned quartet with Christian McBride and Brian Blade.
While he also recorded and gave solo performances, Meldhau preferred the conversational exchange of the trio form, playing extensively with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy and, later, Jeff Ballard.
In June of 2021, he released his latest album, Variations on a Melancholy Theme. He continues to tour and provide amazing music to fans.
6. Mary Lou Williams
Next on our list, we have the great female jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams from Atlanta Georgia. Born in 1910, she moved to Oklahoma in 1929 and first played for and then took over leadership of Andy Kirk’s band, the Twelve Clouds of Joy.
Under Williams, the band caught public attention for her solo piano performances and her innovative musical arrangements.
In 1942, she moved to New York where she switched from the swing music style to bebop. But ever musically versatile, she continued to arrange, and the 1970s saw her writing and arranging liturgical music for jazz ensembles.
Williams joined the faculty of music at Duke University in 1977 where she taught and continued to perform until she passed away in 1981 of cancer at the age of 71.
7. Herbie Hancock
Pianist Herbie Hancock’s musical debut came in 1951 when he played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Despite his classical abilities, however, his career was to be jazz, and he joined Miles Davies’s quintet.
Over the next five years, Hancock built up a name playing with Davies and his contemporaries. He went on to be a major figure in the development of funk and jazz fusion music, utilizing synthesizers in his music.
Hancock was also a prolific composer and wrote a number of compositions that became jazz standards, such as “Cantaloupe Island”, “Watermelon Man” and “Maiden Voyage.”
8. Thelonious Monk
From the 1940s and onward over three decades, American pianist Thelonious Monk was the second most-recorded jazz artists—the first being the iconic Duke Ellington.
But the music Monk played was ahead of its time, and when Monk got tired of playing to depleted audiences, he released the album Brilliant Corners in 1956. This got him noticed.
The recording was a virtuosic display of improvisation, challenging harmonies, and equally challenging sounds. The success sent the Thelonious Monk Quartet, including John Coltrane, on tour across America and cemented Monk in the growing jazz consciousness.
Not only does Monk have an incredible skill at the piano, he was also known as a composer, writing classics of the jazz repertoire, such as “Blue Monk,” “Round About Midnight,” and “I Mean You.”
By 1964, Monk went from overlooked to the front page of Time magazine, a first for a jazz artist. However, he retired shortly afterward in the 1970s and died after a long and serious illness in 1984.
9. Art Tatum
Though his sight was impaired since he was an infant, Art Tatum didn’t let this slow him down. He learned to play the piano early on and was soon hosting his own radio program.
Word got around of his talent as Tatum performed in jazz clubs and recorded. One of his most popular, “Tea for Two,” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.
Tatum became known for his incredible dexterity and amazing improvisation skills. The musical standard he set left fellow artists like Gershwin and Fats Waller rapt and listening, and influenced later pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano.
10. Bill Evans
From Plainfield, New Jersey, Bill Evans is another one of the great jazz pianists whose influence continues to reverberate through the jazz community.
Evans worked with Miles Davies in 1958. It was an eight-month collaboration between musicians and resulted in the best-selling album Kind of Blue in 1959.
After its release, Evans formed a trio with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro. With them, he performed and recorded until LaFaro passed away in the early 1960s. After a brief break, he reformed the trio and continued well into the 1970s.
Like most other pianists on this list, Evans was also a composer. He wrote a number of classics, such as “Waltz for Debby,” “Peace Piece,” and “Blue in Green.”
11. George Shearing
Like Tatum, the British-born pianist Sir George Shearing was also blind. He learned to play the piano by ear when he was just three before getting formal training.
When he was older, Shearing left postwar Britain to start a music career in America. His success was almost instant, in part because his blend of swing and bop with classical influences were unique and endearing, gaining him a popular following.
He formed his own band, the George Shearing Quintet, in 1949, and recorded with them some of his greatest hits, like “Lullaby of Birdland” and “September in the Rain.”
Shearings life-long work earned him a number of honors, including several honorary music degrees from some of the most pretigious schools in the world and a BBC Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2007, his services to music also gained him a knighthood.
12. Dave Brubeck
Another one of the greats, composer and pianist Dave Brubeck revitalized jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. He got people listening to the genre again with pieces like “Take Five” and “Unsquare Dance.”
Brubeck was known to use nonstandard time signatures in his work. Mix this with elements of classical music, fugue, and atonality, he created a unique jazz sound unlike no other. This would soon be known as “third stream,” though it wasn’t called this just yet.
Throughout his career, he worked effectively with fellow musician Paul Desmond. It wasn’t his only partnership but it was a long-lived collaboration and its legacy remains relevant today.
13. Marian McPartland
Born in Slough, England, in1918, Marian McPartland didn’t start out right away playing the piano. She first studied violin and voice, during which she realized she had perfect pitch. However, neither of these instruments appealed to her. It was only when she was 16 that she had formal piano training.
When WWII broke out, McPartland joined the Entertainment National Service Association, where she performed for Allied troops. It was also during her tour with the association that she met her husband.
When the war ended, she followed Shearing’s example and moved to America, where she was influential in the development of bebop and cool jazz. By the 1950s, McPartland was heading her trio and remained a concert favorite for the rest of her career.
14. Red Garland
Unlike other pianists on this list, Red Garland came to learn piano late. He began on the clarinet and only took up the piano when he was 19.
Garland played with Miles Davies’s ensemble around the mid-1950s. He took part in many of the band’s recordings, including Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet.
However, Garland was influential in the bebop movement in his own right. Toward the end of the 1950s, he went on to lead his group and recorded over over 40 sessions.
He returned to Texas later in his career, where he continued to play and perform until his passing in 1984 of a heart attack.
15. Sonny Clark
Conrad Yeatis, better known as Sonny Clark, began his musical collaboration working with saxophonist Wardell Gray, followed by Oscar Pettiford and Buddy DeFranco.
He later accompanied Dinah Washington, and when he moved to New York, his rhythmic comping quickly became a favorite, making him a sought-after sideman.
Clark went on to release a number of his own records, such as The Art of The Trio, Cool Struttin’, and the Sonny Clark Trio, featuring his hard-bop sounds.
Sadly, the pianist’s career was short-lived. He sadly died in 1963, said to be of a heart attack but was later ruled as drug overdose, at the young age of 31.
16. McCoy Tyner
For five years (1960 to 1965), McCoy Tyner spent his time performing in the John Coltrane Quartet and recorded with them the jazz classics John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Live at Birdland, John Coltrane Quartet Plays, among many others.
In between his work with Coltrane, Tyner also recorded as a leader, releasing Reaching Fourth, Today and Tomorrow, and McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington. His success won him five Grammy Awards.
Tyner was known for his grounded lyrical and fluid improvisations with sturdy left-handed chords. He created a sound that is immediately recognizable that can be heard in the albums we have mentioned here.
17. Keith Jarrett
A prodigy with perfect pitch, Keith Jarrett began taking classical piano lessons at the tender age of three. By seven, he was performing publicly and even had his own compositions.
It wasn’t until he was in high school that Jarret began playing jazz. After college, he worked on various jazz collaborations with fellow artists and, in 1967, released his first solo album.
Jarrett came to the attention of the jazz world while working with Miles Davies in 1969, whom he played with for a few years before forming his own jazz quartets and releasing classic albums such as Eyes of the Heart and The Survivors’ Suite.
Jarrett was also famous for the sounds he made with his voice while he played. He’s often heard to hum, sing, or grunt along with his improvisations, sometimes for the entire concert!
18. Fats Waller
One of the earliest jazz pianists to have recorded was Fats Waller, a popular stride and ragtime pianist who later turned his attention to jazz in the 1930s with songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “The Jitterbug Waltz.”
Waller’s playing skills were so notoriously good he was actually kidnapped and forced to play at Al Capone’s birthday party. Thankfully, and to the pianist’s relief, he wasn’t harmed.
Later in his career, Waller achieved a lot of success appearing on the radio and in films and performing in theatres and revues throughout the 1940s. Sadly, he died of pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39.
19. Jelly Roll Morton
One cannot have a list of jazz pianists without mentioning Jelly Roll Morton. His “Jelly Roll Blues” is said to be one of the first published jazz compositions in history.
Morton began his career while still a teen. In 1904, he started touring and composing. Many of his notable works were created during this time, like the above-mentioned “Jelly Roll Blues,” “Frog-I-More Rag,” and “King Porter Stomp.” By the 1910s, Morton was releasing his recordings and playing in jazz clubs in Chicago and New York City.
After suffering stab wounds in 1938, Morton would not fully recover, and slowly his health declined. Three years later, he passed away. Unfortunately, the pianist was said to be arrogant and often embellished truths, like stating he invented jazz. This alienated many of his peers, who did not attend his funeral.
Regardless of his personality, his works are what matters. He was posthumously given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into two halls of fame: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
20. Bud Powell
With a father who’s a stride pianist, it’s not surprising that Bud Powell inherited some of that talent. He had piano lessons at five, and by the time he was 10, he was playing swing music, imitating many of the jazz icons of the time.
In the early 1940s, Powell had a chance meeting with Thelonious Monk, who became his greatest mentor. He then played in Cootie Williams’s orchestra, and despite having offers to play in other big bands of the time, he stayed with Williams until 1945.
Powell had some down times during the end of the ’40s, mostly due to ill health, but he made a comeback in the early 1950s with solo releases and trio recordings, like “Bouncing with Bud” and “Glass Enclosure.”
Unfortunately, Powell’s fame would not last. Alcoholism, mental illness, and self-neglect severely affected the bebop pianist, sending him into a decline, and he passed away in 1966.
21. Nat King Cole
Most probably know jazz legend Nathaniel Adams Cole—Nat King Cole—as an amazing vocalist behind the songs “Unforgettable,” “Smile,” and “Mona Lisa.” But in all these songs, Cole accompanied it with his fingers agilely playing the piano.
Though the Alabaman had been performing professionally since 1934, he had his first hit in 1940 with “Sweet Lorraine.” Soon he was playing Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and winning Grammy awards in a career that lasted until the 1960s.
Cole even hosted his own variety show called The Nat King Cole Show, making him the first African American to do so. Sadly, due to the prejudices of the time, it only lasted a season.
In 1964, it was discovered that Cole had lung cancer. Despite treatment, he passed away the following year in February. His numerous works were not forgotten, however, as he was posthumously inducted into Alabama Music, Alabama Jazz, Rock and Roll, and Latin Songwriters Halls of Fame.
22. Andrew Hill
Born in Chicago in 1931, Andrew Hill took an interest in the piano and started lessons when he was 13. But he did not stop at just one instrument; he learned to play the sax too.
In the 1950s, he played in Paul Williams’s band and did piano gigs with other notable musicians of the time, like Barry Harris and Joe Segal. He also briefly traveled with jazz singer Dinah Washington as her accompaniment and did sideman recordings from the mid-1950s to the 1960s.
However, after this, Hill often played and recorded solo, like in the albums Hommage (1975), Faces of Hope (1980), and Verona Rag (1987). In addition, he taught at Portland State University.
In his last years, Hill battled with lung cancer. Sadly, he passed away in 2007 at the age of 75. His legacy, however, lives on in over 30 albums, in the teachings, he imparted at PSU, and in the inspiration he created with his music.
23. Cedar Walton
Influenced by many of the jazz pianists on this list, Cedar Walton began his own journey to greatness when he was young. And though he began studying music, the after-hour sessions he often participated in drew him to a career of full-time jamming.
After a two-year stint in the army, Walton returned to the music scene and released his first album, This Is the Moment, in 1958. During this time, too, he worked with Art Farmer and Benny Golson in the sextet called the Jazztet.
In the early 1960s, Walton worked in Art Blakey’s band, the Jazz Messengers, as the pianist arranger before moving on to become the pianist of Prestige Records’ house rhythm section.
Other works Walton became notable for are his accompaniment for Abbey Lincoln and Etta James and for his compositions that became jazz standards, like “Bolivia,” “Holy Land,” and “Cedar’s Blues.”
24. Tommy Flanagan
Musician and composer Tommy Flanagan first began playing the clarinet when he was just a child, but influenced by Art Tatum and Budd Powell, he became more attracted to the piano they had at their house.
After giving a two years of service in war-torn Korea in the early 1950s, Flanagan moved to New York. It was there he began work as Queen of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald’s accompaniment, first for three years (1962 to 1965) and then for a decade (1968 to 1978).
After leaving Fitzgerald, Flanagan would continue making music for almost two decades more as a leader of a trio setting, releasing albums such as The Magnificent Tommy Flanagan, The Master Trio, and Flanagan’s Shenanigans.
Many of Flanagan’s work was nominated for Grammy awards, and his influence extended to not just his contemporaries but also younger musicians of this day.
25. Chick Corea
When he was eight, Chick Corea began playing the drums, but when he took lessons from pianist Salvatore Sullo, he started to explore his skills on that instrument more.
Corea’s professional career commenced in the early ’60s when he began recording and touring with musicians of the time. Then in 1968, he dropped his first album, Tones for Joan’s Bones.
Around this time, Corea began to work with Miles Davis, appearing in many of the trumpeter’s recordings, like In a Silent Way and Circle in the Round.
From the 1970s onward, Corea opted to work solo, in a duet, or with his own bands, notably, Return to Forever and Chick Corea Elektric Band. He would also go on to record over 70 studio albums, with many of his works winning Grammy awards. One, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
26. Carla Bley
If one thinks of improvisation and avant-garde jazz, the first name you’ll probably think of is Carla Bley. The composer, arranger, and pianist, whose career started in 1960, is considered one of the important figures of this genre.
Mostly self-taught, Bley worked first as an occasional pianist at the jazz club Birdland in New York. There, she met her first husband, Paul Bley, and began to work closely with him, composing some of his songs as recorded in his album Barrage.
After their divorce, Bley went on to form Jazz Composer’s Guild Orchestra, which later became simply Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and consisted of many free-jazz musicians of the time.
Bley’s best work is considered to be the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. The 1971 album is over an hour and a half long. It became the recipient of the Melody Maker Readers Poll’s Jazz Album of the Year in 1972.
27. Bill Charlap
Born into a musical family, with a singer mom and a composer dad, Bill Charlap was certainly exposed to music at a very early age. In fact, he started his piano studies when he was just three.
Active in the jazz music scene since 1990, Charlap has worked in trios with other jazz artists, like Benny Carter, Tony Bennett, and Scott Hamilton.
After signing with Blue Note Records in 2000, Charlap released two albums that got nominated for Grammy awards, The Bill Charlap Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard and Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.
For the label’s 70th anniversary, he joined the Blue Note 7, a septet that played various pieces of the Blue Note’s artists.
The Grammy-winning pianist is also the artistic director of the Jazz in July Festival in New York City and the director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His wife, Renee Rosnes, is also a notable jazz pianist.
When she was younger, Hiromi Uehara’s first piano teacher, Noriko Hikida, introduced her to jazz. This hooked her to the genre, though Hiromi does not like labeling her music as simply jazz, as, for her, it is a blend of several elements like rock and classical music.
The youngest on this list, the talented Japanese pianist debuted in 2003 with Another Mind which captured the world’s attention. Soon, she was performing in trios and going on world tours. Hiromi was even one of the musicians who opened for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Since Another Mind, Hiromi has released 11 more studio albums, many of which received awards. The latest, Silver Lining Suite (2021), continues to portray the musician’s talent and vibrant creativity.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Jazz Pianists
Can you imagine what jazz would be without these pianists to help bring rhythm to the genre? We bet you can’t even begin to think of it.
That’s how important these musicians are with their contributions to the music scene. Without their innovative techniques, unique playing styles, and standardizing compositions, jazz now would probably be very, very different.
So give the works of these famous jazz piano players and their associated bands a listen. If you’re not yet a jazz fan, you’ll be surprised how their music just might make you one.